The high-ceilinged rooms of the Pall Mall club are lined with statues: an alabaster Venus here, a bronze Mercury there, a Lord Castlereagh in the Smoking Room and, in the library, framed by a large window, an AN Wilson. Or so you could be forgiven for thinking, for the novelist, biographer and journalist is perched, perfectly still, on an antique mahogany reading chair, looking like a victim of hit-and-run cryosurgeons, or at least of hairdressers who make too free with their lacquer.

Andrew Wilson is dressed as demurely as you would expect, in a bird’s-eye pattern three-piece suit, striped shirt, and checked tie. But the <i>tableau vivant</i> of which he is the centre could not be more blatant in its symbolism. Here is the gentleman of letters, it says. The Epicurean. The Thinker. All it needs to complete the effect is a little dust, a few cobwebs. Eventually, without moving his lips or looking round to see who has just entered the room, the monument speaks: ‘I’m keeping still.’

When you notice the wooden box-camera that’s pointing at him from a tripod in the middle of the room, it becomes apparent why. Except that there is no one manning the lens. The photographer has disappeared for the moment behind a bookcase, to check his light meter or load his film. And it seems that the sitter has deemed it courteous to hold his pose — exactly — until he returns. Maybe Wilson is just doing it because he finds it amusing. Such is his insouciance, it’s difficult to tell.

The photographs over, Wilson repairs to an upright leather sofa at the other side of the library, stretches out his legs and feigns surprise that his latest book, <i>Paul: the Mind of the Apostle</i>, is causing such a rumpus. It isn’t due to be published until next week — in time for Easter —  yet already it has got everyone chattering feverishly, not least  because of the public spat it has prompted between its author and a leading Pauline scholar, the Very Revd Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield. So indignant did the Dean feel after reading an early proof of Wilson’s book that he rushed into print his own version of the life of Saint Paul. The two men have since become an entertaining double act on radio current affairs programmes, each attempting to discredit and patronise the other.

The main difference of opinion is over the claim Wilson makes in his book that Jesus Christ was not a Christian at all, and that he  had no intention of founding a religion. Rather, Jesus was a very minor Galilean exorcist, no more significant than dozens of other similar prophets who caused trouble for the Romans. The faith that bears his name, Wilson contends, was invented by the religious genius and visionary Paul of Tarsus. It was Paul’s brilliant mythologising of Jesus as Christ that ensured the immortality of his name, not some piece of magic in which a dead body was said to have come back to life.

Wilson speaks of the Dean with haughty disdain. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘I was inclined to dismiss this fellow Wright as a cheeky person whose books sell only a fraction of my own and who merely wants to attract publicity for himself on the coat tails of my book. Then I realised that there was something very sad about him.’

This sadness, Wilson believes, lies in the blinkered predictability of Wright’s position — his babyish defence of the literal truth of the miraculous. ‘I don’t know why he bothers,’ Wilson intones lugubriously as he lights up a cigarette. ‘No one with an open mind could believe it. That’s what is so extraordinary. He wants to tell us that Jesus really did rise from the tomb, that he really did walk on water and that his body really did whizz up in the air like a rocket after the Resurrection.’ He almost dares you to disagree with him.

The way in which Wilson rides out the various storms he has provoked over the years reminds you of the description of Bridey in <i>Brideshead Revisted</i>: as someone who emanates little magnetic waves of social uneasiness, creating a pool about himself in which he floats with log-like calm. Wilson’s taste for provocation was acquired when he was at Rugby. He wrote an article in the school magazine which called for public schools to be banned — not surprisingly, it excited the interest of the tabloid press. Since then our man has been to controversy what Eric Cantona is to football: God’s gift. Who can forget the time he ungallantly betrayed the confidences — though trivial in their way — of the Queen Mother by writing a profile of her in <i>The Spectator</i> based on a dinner-party conversation; or the time he interviewed a confused Lord Denning and printed remarks he made on the Guildford Four which were never intended for public consumption? More recently, in 1992, Wilson caused a stir with his bestselling biography of Jesus, in which he portrayed Christ as a married, cantankerous, gluttonous soak.

Wilson is the first to admit that he is on fertile ground when it comes to knocking the new era of Anglicanism. Surely, for all their goofy protestations of love, joyfulness and understanding, today’s evangelicals actually display much less tolerance than their predecessors? Wilson nods sagely and says: ‘Violent intolerance.’ This is a conversational quirk of his. When you make a point he agrees with, he repeats it. If you say ‘Mandelson is all powerful,’ he will repeat: ‘All powerful,’ as if ruminating on it. His voice is thin and, although his elegantly rounded Oxford English is crisp, his delivery is languid. Quite often he will pause between sentences, as though distracted. And every now and then he will purse his lips as if trying to suppress a smile. This just serves to exaggerate his supercilious air. It also makes him inscrutable. When he tells you, for instance, that he is surprised by the controversy his new book has caused, it is hard to tell whether he is being disingenuous. Still, his friends say he adores being the centre of attention, and that he himself once said he would hang upside down from a hot-air balloon naked if it would yield column inches.

Whether they are intended to or not, biographies often reveal a great deal about the biographer. Wilson has written seven biographies in all (as well as 16 novels) and they have been revelatory in varying degrees. In his life of CS Lewis, for instance, Wilson assumed that it must have been impossible for Lewis to live in the same house as his friend, a woman, without sleeping with her. Questioned about his motives for writing the Saint Paul book, be agrees that there is probably an element of self-examination involved —  ‘of wanting to look back to a time when I was perfectly pious and I wanted to know what was going on.’  When the point is pressed, though — when it is suggested that a better understanding of the author’s nature should help us to appreciate his psychological analysis of Paul  — Wilson is not so sure. ‘I’m not being cagey, but I find it difficult to understand why exploring my psyche would help you understand this book. It might. It might not. My being imaginative doesn’t mean I’m indulging in autobiography when I write about Saint Paul. I don’t think we are very similar characters for one thing.’

No? Saint Paul was famous for his inconsistencies and for changing his mind — he is, after all, the most famous convert in history. Of Wilson, one of his friends says this: ‘I like Andrew, but he can never keep to the same belief for two minutes together.’ Wilson happily concedes that this is true. ‘All minds are prone to change,’ he says. ‘I change mine about everything, 100 times a day. After the apocalypse Paul was very dogged. He had a profound belief in his visions. I’m an oblique person, not single-minded at all. I chop and change.’

Wilson thinks one of the reasons he changes his mind so often is that he is easily bored. This is why he always reads ten books at once, dipping in and out of them rather than reading one from start to finish. There is another reason why he keeps changing his mind: he can always see the argument against a belief as soon as he’s entertained it. He denies, though, that this means he is too clever for his own good. ‘No. I don’t think it’s cleverness,’ he says with that pursed-lip smile. ‘I’m just a flibbertigibbet.’

Another thing Wilson has in common with Saint Paul is an appreciation of the advantages of re-inventing oneself from time to time, indeed of founding a movement in one’s own image. Wilson himself has been mythologised so effectively in the media, that profiles of him now almost have to conform to a genre. As well as mentioning his reputation for controversy and prolificacy (someone once joked that AN Wilson must be the collective pen-name for a group of writers — six women and two men — operating out of a warehouse in Epping), they always have to allude to the famous photograph of him riding a bicycle with a basket on the front, while wearing a waistcoat and trilby. It was this that made him a young fogey icon.

‘I’m not young any more,’ says Wilson, now 46. ‘But I’m still a fogey. It wasn’t conscious at all. In fact — a good example of vanity this — I didn’t like it in the least when it started. Hated it. Hated it. I know it was ridiculous to mind. It’s just I didn’t like to be labelled. It’s rather like Saint Paul not meaning to have found Christianity when he started out. I didn’t mean to found the fogey movement. It just happened. One is as one is. It was all the fault of that photographer who took a photo of me in that silly hat, looking like Douglas Hogg riding a bicycle.’

Another central component of AN Wilson mythology is his early — and somewhat chequered — career within the Church. After Oxford, he drifted into a seminary for a year, probably to spite his father who had renounced religion. He went on to work as a lecturer at Oxford, became a high-profile, High Church Anglican, and then flirted with Catholicism, only to reject both around the time that his first marriage, to a lecturer ten years his senior, collapsed (he is now married to an art historian ten years his junior). That religious period, he believes, now gives him an advantage when debating with fundamentalists such as the Dean of Lichfield. ‘I know where the idea is coming from. He’s not a totally alien being. Although, of course, I wasn’t Low Church like he is. And I never had that evangelical certainty. I was always an honest doubter. More a Betjeman type of believer.’

Another important strand of the Wilson myth is the subtle way he combines his latent republicanism with his High Tory values and his occasional bouts of believing that we must all vote Labour. At the moment he says he hasn’t completely made up his mind for whom he wants to vote in the General Election. ‘I might vote for Mr Major, as no one else seems to want to,’ he says with a grin. ‘One hates to follow the majority.’

And then, of course, there is the freakishly high intellect. While writing his biography of Tolstoy, Wilson learned Russian in six months so that he could read all the major fiction in the language. And it is said that he only ever thinks about what he is going to write as he is writing it, sometimes at the incredible rate of 7,000 words a day.

Given that such a large chunk of Wilson’s life is devoted to novel-writing — and given that he goes at it all at such a pace — it would be understandable if, in his imagination, the world of fiction occasionally collided with the world of fact. There have, indeed, been some notable examples of real people identifying themselves in his novels. Lady Lucinda Lambton felt so moved when she recognised passages from her life in his book <i>Who Was Oswald Fish?,</i> she went up to  Wilson at a party and slapped his face.

It might be, too, that because he is a novelist, Wilson sometimes believes the world is actually populated with fictional characters, and so it doesn’t really matter if you upset them. ‘I’m very silly to think my acts don’t have consequences,’ he once said, after being sacked from <i>The Spectator</i> for changing a contributor’s copy — in order to turn a compliment to Clive James into an insult. But this tendency to blur myth and reality gives Wilson a distinct advantage when, for example, analysing Saint Paul’s complex psyche and his motives for inventing Christianity.

‘The trouble now is,’ Wilson says, ‘in a post-Enlightenment world we make all these distinctions between things that actually took place and things we have only imagined, whereas in the ancient world people did things mythologically: Did they really believe in Hercules? Some didn’t. Of course the Resurrection is not an historical fact. It’s a statement of faith that only makes sense in this very, very peculiar messianic Jewish tradition. Suppose I were to die tomorrow and the staff of the <i>Evening Standard</i> [where he is a weekly columnist] formed some curious belief that I was going to come back on the clouds. That would just be bizarre. It wouldn’t relate to anything.’

Perhaps not, but it would be delightful to behold. Is it, one wonders, Wilson’s capacity to imagine what it was like to see the world in mythological terms that allows him to live with the myths that have built up around his own life? To reconcile his reputation for being polite and affable in person but spikey in print? To dismiss Marina Warner as a charlatan and a bore, or compare AS Byatt to a blue balloon, or say things like: ‘If we were being snobbish, we should feel bound to say that Mrs Thatcher is irredeemably common.’? Richard Ingrams once told Wilson that he could always earn his living in journalism because everyone finds him so irritating. ‘I don’t quite see it myself,’ Wilson now says. ‘Nice if it’s true. I’m not savage now, though. I have been unkind in the past and I have regretted it.’

It is telling that he compares himself to a bully at school who feels guilty when he has made someone cry. ‘It’s not a cruel streak, just childishness,’ he says. ‘Of course one goes too far sometimes. But I don’t think it’s any deep-seated sadism.’ Like most bullies, he admits, he is sensitive to criticism himself. ‘One is touchy about one’s appearance. Obviously, if one looks perfectly ghastly, one would prefer others not to say so. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why I feel sorry that I’ve joined in the mockery of poor Ann Widdecombe. She could maybe improve her hair but there’s not much she can really do. She does look like Ann Widdecombe — which is pretty bad luck really!’

He can’t resist chuckling to himself as he says this — and it reminds you that, behind the withering put-downs and the brittle satire, there lies simply a sense of mischief. Who else but AN Wilson would have dared say what we would all like to say to Princess Margaret — and get away with it? At a dinner party, it may be remembered, the Princess said to him that she couldn’t recall which luxury she had chosen on <i>Desert Island Discs</i>. Wilson replied: ‘I believe it was one of your regiments, Ma’am.’

The thing about AN Wilson is that, for all the po-faced intellectual posturing, he is surprisingly, cheerily straightforward. For someone so obsessed with grand theological debate, he is disarmingly free of internal metaphysical struggle. The  prospect of his own death, for instance, does not appear to fill him with a particular sense of panic. As for why this is, he says he’s really not sure. After all, he knew Philip Larkin when he was alive and so can appreciate more than most the extent to which some people dread extinction. ‘Horrible being him. When Larkin talked about it he just shook, as Dr Johnson did. Absolute terror. Johnson was such an intelligent man yet he was profoundly melancholic — just the sort of psyche which is naturally religious. I’m lucky. I’m that very rare thing: a happy person. I’ve no reason to be anything else. Nice parents, nice brother and sister, nice children, nice wives.’

The interview nearly over, it will soon be time for the celestial choir to sing the hallelujah chorus and for the saintly AN Wilson to ascent back to the clouds on which he arrived — or, failing that, to pedal back to his house in North London. In a pastiche of fogeydom, he now orders a pot of tea and anchovies on toast. As he pours, it seems an appropriate moment to ask him to explain a puzzling comment he once made about the collapse of the House of Windsor being tied in with the collapse of the Church of England.

‘Do you know,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘I haven’t the slightest recollection. Sorry about that.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.